In the last decade, China has rapidly expanded its “green” new energy vehicle (NEV) industry but recycling and disposing of hundreds of thousands of tons of used car batteries has become a pressing issue due to environmental concerns.
Growth in China’s NEV industry took off in 2014 when nearly 78,500 NEVs were produced and some 75,000 were sold. As of September of this year, China’s NEV registration reached 6.78 million, of which 5.52 million are fully electric vehicles.
The NEV industry predicts that its production and sales growth rate will remain above 40 percent in the next five years prompting the question of how to best manage the growing numbers of discarded lithium batteries from the NEVs.
Industry data shows that the service life of lithium batteries used in electric vehicles is generally 5 to 8 years, and the service life under warranty is 4 to 6 years. That means, tens of thousands of electric car batteries will soon need to be discarded or recycled, and millions more down the road.
According to the latest data from China Automotive Technology and Research Center, the cumulative decommissioning of China’s electric car batteries reached 200,000 tons in 2020 and the figure is estimated to climb to 780,000 tons by 2025.
Presently, most end-of-life batteries are traded in the unregulated black market, raising serious environmental concerns. If such batteries are not handled properly, they could cause soil, air, and water pollution.
“A 20-gram cell phone battery can pollute a water body equivalent to three standard swimming pools. If it is buried in the ground, it can pollute 1 square kilometer (247 acres) of land for about 50 years,” Wu Feng, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, once publicly stated.
Electric car batteries are many times larger than cell phone batteries.
According to Li Yongwang, a chemical engineering expert in China, pollution caused by NEV batteries is very likely far worse than the exhaust pollution from gasoline-run vehicles.
If they are buried or discarded at will, Li said, they are not only toxic for the environment but they are a direct danger to people’s lives given they can explode from heat.
This photo taken on March 12, 2021, shows workers at a factory for Xinwangda Electric Vehicle Battery Co. Ltd, which makes lithium batteries for electric cars and other uses, in Nanjing in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Recycling of power batteries has become a pressing issue in China, and it’s considered a weak point that the Chinese authorities did not consider adequately when it heavily promoted the NEV industry.
There are currently two different methods for recycling electric car batteries. One is to recover valuable raw materials after disassembly. The other is secondary utilization in other fields.
At present, automobile power batteries are mainly divided into two types: ternary lithium batteries and lithium iron phosphate batteries.
Ternary lithium batteries have a relatively high content of rare metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese, and it’s more worthwhile to recover these.
The main ingredients in lithium iron phosphate batteries are lithium and iron, which are less worthy of recovering. This type of battery is often recycled through secondary utilization, as its service life is longer.
Regardless of the type of battery, the recycling market in China is huge. China Orient Securities has estimated that China’s power battery recycling market, including the two methods of recycling, is expected to reach $37 billion by 2025.
In August this year, Chinese authorities issued the “Administrative Measures for the Secondary Utilization of Power Batteries for New Energy Vehicles,” requiring new energy vehicle manufacturers to establish power battery recycling channels.
However, these car makers only bear the extra costs and reap no profits from adding battery recycling to their business. Chinese state media quoted an expert as saying that power batteries are not produced by NEV companies. Therefore, these companies have no incentive to recycle end-of-life power batteries.
A battery exchange robot changes the batteries to an electric car at China’s largest electric vehicle battery recharging station in Beijing, China on May 30, 2012. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
In addition, according to Chinese state media, there are a series of problems associated with the current recycling policies: non-uniform recycling standards, non-standard processes, inconsistent resource utilization efficiency, non-uniform pricing, and an unclear distribution of profits.
Another problem is that, although there are many companies engaged in battery recycling in China, there are only 27 companies that have the qualifications for secondary utilization and recycling of batteries used in electric cars.
The huge market, coupled with slow official actions, thus created favorable conditions for a black market. Presently, countless services can be found on China’s largest second-hand commodity trading platform Xianyu when searching for used car batteries.
On this black market, power battery recycling is generally priced in tons. According to Chinese state media, the recycling price of power lithium batteries ranges from $1,250 to $1,563 U.S. dollars per ton. Most of these businesses purchase end-of-life batteries from all over the county.
In comparison, prices set by officially designated companies are often lower than on the black market, as the secret companies are able to cut costs by evading regulatory measures, according to China Energy News. As a result, the official companies cannot even obtain any batteries. An industry expert disclosed to Beijing News that about 80 percent of end-of-life power batteries flow into black markets for recycling.
When recycling is not an option for black market companies, the environment loses out. In 2018, authorities in Tieling City of Liaoning Province seized an illegal lead smelting plant and 330 tons of waste batteries. Workers at the plant dismantled storage batteries and discharged 50 tons of sulfuric acid directly into nearby land without any treatment, causing irreversible pollution.